As both an academic and a writer, I have recently become appalled by the irresponsibility I have seen from both academics and journalists in the main (lame) stream media. Indeed, it seems that integrity in both of these professions has gone out the window, replaced by a desire to shape—and indeed manufacture—one dimensional thought. In this respect, both academics and journalists risk becoming no different from corporate advertisers. Like advertisers, who seek to create an image for consumers through rhetoric, so too do professional academics and journalists seek to create a self-image for the consumers of main (lame) stream media.

On 9 July 2018, CNN ran a piece by the academic Robert M. Sapolsky of Stanford University with the headline “Be alarmed when a leader tries to make you think of humans as vermin”. Mr. Sapolsky took offense to U.S. President Donald Trump’s comment that “Democrats ‘want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13’”, because the word “infest” is generally used in relation to subhuman—and often unwanted—creatures like insects or vermin. In support of his argument, Mr. Sapolsky cites academic research (like this) which claims that

 

social conservatives tend toward lower thresholds for disgust than liberals. They’re more likely to be unsettled by wearing someone else’s (clean) clothes, sitting on a chair still warm from a previous occupant, or thinking of someone spitting into a glass of water and then drinking it; show them a disgusting picture (e.g., a wound teeming with maggots) and their autonomic nervous systems tend to lurch more than a liberal’s would (and as an important control, this lower threshold is not found among economic or geopolitical conservatives).

 

Indeed, this research is similar to earlier academic “findings” which claim that disliking body odor is connected to having “rightwing views”. Now, of course, this is fairly absurd; do we not have a right—as individual humans—to value cleanliness? Perhaps this new interpretation is connected to Sociologist Norbert Elias’ view that as society “civilizes” it begins to take on the qualities of the lower classes since, traditionally, those with less access to adequate housing and bathing facilities are more likely to be “unclean”.

Yet the media skewing of perceptions goes far beyond one academic’s defense of a criminal gang like MS-13. It also involves geopolitics as well. After Mr. Trump said, in response to a journalist’s question regarding the United States’ hypothetical defense of Montenegro under NATO’s Article 5 which sees an attack on one member as an attack on all, that “They’re [Montenegrins] very strong people, they’re very aggressive people. They may get aggressive and, congratulations, you’re in World War Three,” the BBC was beside itself. The BBC’s Balkan correspondent Guy Delauney went so far as to claim that Mr. Trump depicted the Balkan nation as “a nation of conflict-crazy lunatics”. The logical jump here is staggering: While Mr. Trump is merely pointing out the absurdity of connecting the U.S.—through mutual defense treaties—to small nations in geopolitically contentious areas like the Balkans, since it could increase the risk of potentially dangerous conflicts, nowhere does Mr. Trump claim anything about “conflict crazed lunatics”. Unfortunately, the media—these days—will go to great lengths to shape the perceptions of its readers (many of whom are likely grossly uninformed).

Sadly, social media also engages in the same type of opinion formation. Take, for instance, three maps produced on the social media platform Instagram. The first depicts a comparison of voting results in Turkey with the ethnic map of Turkey, the second compares the populations of vast swathes of middle America to New York’s most populous areas, while the third compares the size of various European nations to the size of Ukraine’s ethnic-Russian minority. The subtext of these maps is extremely dangerous.

 

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The Three Maps in Question. Courtesy of Instagram (Specific Accounts at Top).

 

Essentially, the maps of Turkey send viewers the message that Turkey should be divided along ethnic lines—even though we all know that ethnic demarcations based on demographic surveys do not correspond neatly to reality on the ground. One would think that this lesson would have been learned from the disaster of British boundary drawing in the Middle East following World War One. The map of the United States sends the message that Mr. Trump is somehow an illegitimate president, because rural residents in sparsely populated areas voted so differently than urban residents in densely populated areas. According to this logic, it is unimportant that people in such disparate areas as Maine and Texas should think similarly; it is more important that urban residents of New York City think similarly. The map of Europe sends the message that the ethnic Russian minority in Ukraine is a sizable one, implying that—somehow—Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory can be justified. These three maps show the dangers of opinion shaping via social media; it makes the world a more dangerous place.

I will close this short essay with a picture of a Mercedes billboard I saw in Istanbul. It depicts three young people with a Mercedes, along with the caption “Very original. Just like you”. Here, we see a corporate entity—in this case Mercedes—looking to shape the perception of consumers. The message being sent says “if you want to be original, then buy a Mercedes”. Since every human being wants something to set themselves apart in an increasingly homogenized world, the message is clear: If you want to confirm what you already think about yourself, then buy our product. The advertisement plays into the individual’s deepest desires, even though—in reality—conforming to corporate advertising will have the exact opposite effect from the one initially desired by the consumer. Buying a Mercedes will not set you apart in reality, but the emotional affirmation offered by the advertisement is more important. Just like the emotional messages sent by CNN and BBC look to confirm their readers’ own senses of moral superiority and “tolerance” vis-à-vis the masses’ “intolerance”.

 

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“Very Original. Just Like You”. Image Courtesy of the Author.
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